Disconnect to Connect on a School Trip Abroad

The group just playing some cards and having a laugh | Sally Imber
The group just playing some cards and having a laugh | Sally Imber

How a school trip abroad can help bring back real communication

On returning home from my travels this Summer I squeezed onto a packed commuter train at Gatwick, carefully trying to avoid knocking into too many people with my rucksack whilst on the search for an empty seat. A little boy of not more than seven beamed as I sat down opposite him, his bright eyes seeking out mine, clearly fascinated about where I had come from. Was it the rucksack he was drawn to? Had he found it funny that it was just that little bit too awkward to walk down the aisle with? Did I have a dirty mark on my face? Oh no he’d just found the only other person in the train carriage not wearing headphones lost to a world of technology – he wanted to do the strangest of things … talk! 

We passed a wonderful hour. He’d been to London (his first time in the capital). Seen Buckingham Palace (not the Queen unfortunately). Helped his Mum at work (wouldn’t want to do that every day). Explained that the mass of clothes next to him was his sleeping sister (exhausted from their adventures). Quizzed me about who might live in the castles that flew past the train window (do all those fields belong to the castle?) Those around us continued to exist in their own bubble, knees bizarrely touching, shoulders rubbing, eyes averted and brains and minds intent on their solitary fix.

What are we teaching our next generation? 

That it is wrong to talk to complete strangers under any circumstances? That it is awkward to make eye contact? That last night’s fictional episode is more important than the day the person opposite is having? Are we deskilling our children? Are they able to recognise facial signals, respond to conversation starters, confidently engage with others and develop social skills in order to form positive relationships and real friendships?

Unplug to unwind. Tune out to tune in. Disconnect to connect.

A recent experiential learning trip to Morocco with a group of my secondary students has given me hope. As organisers of the trip we explained prior to enrolment that students were not allowed to take mobile phones with them for a number of reasons. It was fascinating to watch the results. 
Disconnect first, in order to connect with each other

The initial reason, given to us during our original staff training, was partly due to the poor signal in many of the parts of the High Atlas Mountains. On top of that, it is essential that if there is a difficulty or even an emergency that students have to deal with, that they are able to do so without feeling the need to immediately text parents back at home. Students need to work as a team, support each other, react to the situation at hand and learn from the experts. Our local guides had both the equipment, and more importantly, the knowledge of the surrounding area to get messages through if required. Broken and confused messages received by worried parents who are unable to help cause unnecessary angst. Besides, a student who has successfully overcome feeling unwell, upset, homesick or just simply exhausted comes back from their school trip abroad as a far stronger and independent person.  
There was no pressure to pose for selfies
Our students found the lack of a phone disconcerting at first. Many panicked, thinking they had left it on the coach or in the airport, but it didn’t take long to feel a new found sense of freedom. There was no risk that they were going to lose, scratch or drop their phone. Or worse still, be the target of theft. There was no pressure to pose for selfies, pout and post or even consider what their friends were doing that evening at a party they were missing. There was no worry about a bad hair day or whether the clothes were right – we were there to live alongside, support and build contacts with the Moroccan community in a beautiful part of the world that relies, for the fragile present, far less on modern technology.

Entertainment had to be technology free

The sheer joy of watching students bond as a group, making friendship bracelets, playing cards, creating ball games, doing yoga and talking, really talking, was a breath of fresh air. Not just for those of us old enough to remember a different world, but also for those students who have known nothing other than the technological frenzy of social media they have been born into.
Enjoying breakfast in Bhaktapur, just outside of Kathmandu |  <i>Greg Pike</i>

Communication was real. Individuals had to pick up whether members of the group needed help, support, distraction or time alone. Their soft skills flourished. Communication with those speaking a different language had to be carefully thought out, expressed through gesture or the simplicity of a smile.

Through the senses

The trekking in Morocco’s High Atlas is demanding both physically and mentally. To truly experience the challenge and the splendour, whether in Morocco or any other destination for a school trip abroad, it is paramount to do so through the senses. A quote I saw on my own travels in Estonia summed up the need to embrace the world not from behind a phone or through the ubiquitous headphones but through the heart and through the people around you:
Hiking means looking with one’s own eyes, listening with one’s own ears, thinking with one’s own mind and feeling with one’s own heart.
– Edgar Kant, geographer & economist

There is an irony that due to the close friendships formed across a quite disparate group the students are using their phones to remain in contact with each other since their return and going their separate ways. Likewise, once the bundle of clothes that was the sister woke up, my train companion grabbed an iPad to challenge his sibling. Technology is undoubtedly here to stay. But we must ensure that, despite the obvious advantages, we provide our children with opportunities to disconnect in order to connect, before we all forget how.

Article is written by Jo Biddle, who travelled on a school trip abroad with World Expeditions Schools in July 2019. Pictures from World Expeditions Schools image library. 

What does 'Disconnect to Connect' mean?

To maximize the benefits of the travel experience, students need to be free to be fully in the moment, engaging in the activities on offer and focusing on the people they are travelling with. This blog article by the Huffpost explains it in another way. 
When phones are down (students are disconnected), eyes are up, freeing students to look around and notice things (they are connected). Without phones, students are open to receive information from all their senses, allowing them to fully engage in the travel experience, to maximize the potential for learning and growth. It also gives them the chance to top up their creative fuel by being in tune to their own thoughts and responses in a way that is not possible when they are beholden to the phone. 

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